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a night to remember

Up in the dead of the night — alarm set for 4 am, but too much nervous energy to sleep. 2:45am. Election coverage on one browser, the Penguins game on another. The first results start rolling in. Kentucky. Indiana. Both red, as expected, but also a bit redder than predicted by the polls. Too early to tell anything other than that the final tally will be close.

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The Embassy election viewing event is scheduled to start at 5am. Shower and get dressed during intermission between the 2nd and 3rd period of the hockey game. Motorpool arrives at 4:30. The van stops to pick up several colleagues. Exchange hellos. Some are still half-asleep, others glued to their smart phones, obsessively checking the results. 538 shows the presidential election as a pure toss-up at this point. Too early to tell definitively, but the much-vaunted blue firewall appears to be cracking. The Penguins, down 1-3 at one point, complete an improbable comeback and seal a 4-3 win over the Oilers with less than two minutes left to play — cause for celebration in a night of uncertainty.

Mix and mingle with tea in hand. Make small talk with contacts, discussing the peculiarity of the electoral college, the implications of votes in key swing states, the historic nature of this election. The writing is on the wall well before the final swing states are called. The GOP will hold the Senate, its candidate will be the country’s 45th president.

We were posted in Nairobi during the 2012 elections. What a difference four years make. The Kenyans cheered loudly every time a state was called for President Obama. They celebrated as if one of their own were being reelected to the White House. The enthusiasm was contagious. By contrast, the mood at the Embassy event in Kigali in the wee hours of November 9, 2016 can best be described as subdued. The conversation is muted, the room seems deflated.

A few attendees cry. They are not obligated to abide by the Hatch Act, which prohibits federal employees from displaying partisan behavior. They can wear their emotions on their sleeves while Embassy employees deflect questions about the candidates’ suitability for public office and stick to emphasizing the value of free and fair elections and the importance of a peaceful transition of power.

The event ends at 8am local time. The networks won’t call the election for another hour and a half, but there is no doubt at this point — even the most casual observers see which way the wind is blowing. Return to the office, to the work that was put on hold but must be completed regardless of which party triumphs.

Try to stay off social media, but feel drawn to it like a moth to flame. Facebook — a wall of conservative exultation and liberal grief, an endless barrage of political posts crowding out baby photos and cat memes. Echoes of 2000. Shock. Denial. Anger. Bargaining, as if electors would really buck the will of the voters and consider upending our democracy in response to an online petition. Guilt. Depression. Even a fleeting sense of hope and acceptance. All the emotional stages that accompany personal tragedy are on full display, echoing throughout the liberal social media bubble.

Calls to action, calls to remain calm. President Obama said, “The path this country has taken has never been a straight line. We zig and zag, and sometimes we move in ways that some people think is forward and others think is moving back. And that’s okay.” How far will we move and in which direction? We have our suspicions — our hopes and fears — but only time will tell.

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